This was just fun to watch.  The animation is superb, the story line is winsome, the characters have depth, and there's just enough whimsy and fanciful asides to make it all enjoyable.

            Moana (Auli'i Cravalho) is a teenage girl who's grown up as the village chief's daughter, but she doesn't wear the “princess” crown easily.  She's OK with some of the ceremonial functions, but soon she gets restless, and yearns to be on the open sea.  Her Dad, Chief Tui (Temeura Morrison), has forbidden the islanders from venturing beyond the reef, even when the fishing dries up and the coconuts develop some strange blight.  It seems he had a negative experience on the open sea when younger, and he's convinced everybody it's too dangerous.  But his Mother, Gramma Tala (Rachel House) is much more attuned to the sea, and much more a free spirit than her over-responsible son. She encourages Moana to go explore, as their ancestors did, and find out who she is---not to mention finding a way for her people to sojourn somewhere else.  Moana definitely feels the lure of the open ocean.  As a small child, she dreamed that the sea chose her for a special task, but Gramma Tala tells her it was more than a dream, it's her calling.

            Gramma Tala tells Moana the mythology of their Polynesian people, that Maui, the demigod, could deliver them with the magic fishook the gods gave him, but he must defeat the evil Sina, from whom he stole the heart that allowed him to give the gifts of fire, and coconuts, to the humans.  After Gramma Tala's deathbed request, Moana embarks on her epic adventure, with only her dumb chicken, HeiHei, as a companion (his job is to keep it light).  When Moana finally meets Maui (Dwayne Johnson), it turns out he has some issues.  He's quite full of himself, and he's not really interested in meeting Sina again, and he doesn't really care if Moana achieves her goals or not.  Here, the mythology somewhat reflects the dynamics of the Greek pantheon, where gods were sometimes selfish and cruel, and demigods (like Hercules) were a mixed bag, as well.

            Without a lot of explanation about the cosmology, the Sea itself has a life and a will of its own.  And Sina, though ostensibly full of fire and fury, is not how she first appears, either.  Along the way, Moana learns that she has resourcefulness and fearlessness that becomes more evident in challenging situations.  Though she learns some accomodation and cooperation skills, she also develops some strong self-reliance, which will serve her well no matter where she goes, including back to her native village to assume her leadership role.

            One of this reviewer's pet peeves is to cast adults as teenagers, even for voice parts, but here's a rare refreshing example of doing the casting right:  newcomer Auli'i Cravalho is just now turning sixteen, and her youthful exuberance just shines through in both her voice acting and in her singing.  Dwayne Johnson turns out to be a serviceable crooner himself.  But this is Cravalho's show.  And she excels in the lead role.  Female empowerment by cartoon, anyone?


Questions for Discussion:

1)                  There is already controversy about the filmmakers “exploiting” the Polynesian culture for the sake of making money in this film (and its subsequent product licenses).  The filmmakers claim they are celebrating the culture, not exploiting it.  What do you think?

2)                  When have you felt the weight of family expectation in your life decisions? 

3)                  When have you attempted to enlist the cooperation of someone who definitely had issues?


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association